Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, ordered counties to stop accepting hand-delivered absentee ballots at more than one location, issuing a proclamation that could make it harder for residents to vote early.
The proclamation, which goes into effect Friday, modifies part of Abbott's July 27 order that added six days of early absentee voting in the state in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fellow Republicans in Texas are challenging the additional early voting days in court.
After concerns were raised about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, voters have increasingly indicated a desire to use drop-off sites to ensure that votes are counted while avoiding the possible crowds on Election Day.
Abbott said he issued the new order to ensure the security of the ballots, which President Donald Trump has questioned as Americans have embraced early and absentee voting in response to the pandemic. Trump has sought to sow distrust about the outcome of the election by casting doubt, without evidence, on the integrity of the system.
Texas has 254 counties, the largest of which is rural Brewster, which covers 6,193 square miles, larger than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.
Harris County, which includes much of the sprawling city of Houston, has a population of more than 4.7 million people, according to the Census Bureau. The county is home to 25 percent of the state's Black residents and 18 percent of its Hispanic population.
Before Abbott's proclamation, the county had created 11 ballot drop-off locations.
"The state of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections," Abbott said in a statement. "As we work to preserve Texans' ability to vote during the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state. These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting."
Abbott said poll watchers must be on hand to observe any location where early ballots are being accepted.
Trump called for his supporters to act as unofficial "poll watchers" during the first presidential debate Tuesday. He wants his supporters to go and "watch very carefully, because that's what has to happen."
Democrats quickly criticized the move by Abbott.
"Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared. We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on November 3, and there's nothing these cheaters can do about it," state Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, also a Democrat, criticized the decision in a statement.
"Growing up, I was bused over 20 miles as a student in the first integrated class at Klein High School," he said. "Because of the Governor's decision today, I would now have to go even farther to drop off an absentee ballot and make sure my vote is counted."
He added, "We should be focused on making voting more accessible and stop trying to create obstacles and distractions with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud."
Sarah Labowitz, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of Texas, urged Abbott in a statement to find a way to continue to let people return ballots.
"The governor should work with counties to ensure that all timely mailed ballots are received and counted, and that all voters appearing at polling places to submit ballots or vote are free from harassment," she said.
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Houston isn't the only city whose voters could be forced to drive over an hour to deliver ballots.
Dallas County, which initially opened five drop-off locations, is in a similar situation. Dallas County is the state's second-largest county by population, with over 2.5 million people.
Harris and Dallas counties are Latino-majority counties, and both span over 2,500 square miles.
"While the governor asserts that he is attempting to 'strengthen ballot security,' we see this as yet another thinly disguised attempt to stymie the vote. As is well documented, Texas has a voter suppression problem, not a ballot security problem," Labowitz said.